Thursday, June 08, 2006

Soccer and growing up

The first games of the World Cup begin tomorrow. (The United States’ first game isn’t until Monday.) The World Cup competition has taken place every four years since 1930, with the exception of 1942 and 1946, and is the most significant soccer (or football) tournament in the world. You can check out the latest at the BBC here and the World Cup site here.

The games this year are in Germany. There has been concern about potential conflicts involving racist and right-wing elements from German society. However, soccer helped provide post-war Germany with one of its defining moments of recovery and rebirth. According to Der Speigel:

Every country has those stories that help build its collective national
consciousness. Some, of course, have receded into the mists of time only to be
kept alive by a collection of monuments or statues. The grizzled looking
horseback warriors in Budapest provide a particularly intimidating example --
Attila and his gang don't look terribly pleasant modelled in marble. In the
United States, on the other hand, no school child makes it long without learning
of the heroic American colonists like Paul Revere shaking off the imperial
British forces seeking to oppress them during in the Revolutionary War.

And Germany? Germany has the World Cup. Specifically, the
global football championship of 1954 held in Switzerland. The Miracle of Bern.
In one 90 minute match against Hungary, modern-day Germany was born.
You may read the whole article here.

However, soccer not only can provide the background story for national rebirth but also provide a background story about a boy growing up.

My older son started playing soccer when he was in kindergarten at John B. Cary Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia. The kids were cute to watch. They would all gather around the ball and kick it a few inches with their little legs. A whole cluster of kids – practically everyone form both teams -- would slowly work their way down the field and back around the ball. As they got older they began to spread out more from one another and kick the ball farther.

My son played school soccer until about the 4th grade and then tried out for the Richmond United “travel team.” Travel teams played at a much higher skill level than the schools and actually traveled out of town for games.

Soccer became a part of our lives. He would have practice once or twice a week plus a game every Saturday each fall and spring. I never played soccer when I was a kid. In fact, I had never even heard of it so my soccer experience was completely a vicarious experience as a father.

I watched my son grow up while playing soccer. Just between you and me, for the first few years I often wondered how he even made the team. He seemed to almost run away from the ball and spent a lot of time on the bench. Obviously the coach saw the potential for something I didn’t and suddenly one season it became very clear what the coach saw. It was as if something clicked. Suddenly the boy who always played the field from a position as far from the action as he possibly could became very aggressive and was instinctively putting all the skills he had learned over the years to use. Watching that transformation on the soccer field made me also realize that regardless of whatever goofy things he would do as a teenager he was going to turn out O.K. as an adult.

Within a year or two he graduated from being a bench warmer to one of the main players for whatever team he happened to be playing on that season. In fact, it got to the point that whenever he was injured the other parents would panic.

Watching him grow up on the soccer field had its poignant moments. Both of my parents passed away before he started school and never saw him play this game that became such an important part of his life. There were so many times I watched him play I imagined they were standing there with me and I would have to explain the strategy and they would ask me questions about the rules (as if I could reasonably explain what offsides meant). It was a game as alien to them as it was to me before my son started to play. I would have to resort to analogies to Indiana high school basketball, the ultimate Hoosier sport.

My son is grown now. Well, let me clarify. He will be starting his sophomore year in college this fall. He has played on some adult leagues since graduating from high school. I still love watching him play. He and I will catch some of the World Cup games together over the coming month.

(Graphic above is by Felipe Micaroni Lalli)

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